Topics that Interest Historians in Australia

Coloured words of varying sizes

This word cloud shows frequency of words used in the abstracts of papers delivered at concurrent sessions at the 2017 Australian Historical Association conference. Generated using Voyant.

The annual gathering of historians in Australia is big. This year there were nearly 300 papers delivered in concurrent sessions. Yesterday I blogged about the keynotes and plenary panels. Today I will have a look at the masses of papers delivered by over three hundred historians. Before you recoil in horror at the prospect of a very lengthy post, I assure you that I will be giving a very broad overview with a closer look at a few topics.

To get an idea of the topics and issues that were of particular interest to historians at the conference, I uploaded the abstracts from the concurrent sessions in Voyant and looked at the frequency of words used. Voyant excludes ‘stop words’ from analysis such as ‘the’, ‘a’, ‘an.

One of the most frequently used in the abstracts for the concurrent sessions was ‘war’. But I am cautious about the method I used. One abstract may use a keyword many times. So I inserted all the abstracts into a spreadsheet and then counted how many abstracts had at least one mention of the word ‘war’. This method showed that 63 of the 299 abstracts for the concurrent sessions, or 21%, used the word ‘war’.

That sounds like a lot of papers. But this is a modern history conference and the twentieth century had a lot of horrific wars. These figures might give the impression that there was a lot of war history in the conference but this is not necessarily the case. It includes papers such as Cheryl Glowrey’s environmental history paper on fishing in the Bass Strait which notes that the World Wars had an impact on the technology and environmental issues in fishing. It also includes Laura Ticehurst’s paper on dating in the post-war 1950s. In these cases the historical discussion in the abstract, recognises war as a disruptive force in society but the focus of the analysis is not on the war itself but the period after the war. However, the statistics also include the papers of the War Crimes Panel and the PNG War Panel.

This is a demonstration of the need for caution in interpreting statistics and not being seduced by the results of easy-to-use tools that are widely available to interpret data.

Aboriginal History

Of greater interest is the focus on indigenous peoples. The words ‘Aboriginal’ and ‘indigenous’ were used often in the abstracts. Again I checked the number of papers that used these words together with ‘Aborigine’.

Thirteen percent of abstracts mentioned ‘indigenous’ words. It is not surprising that many historians recognise the indigenous history of a colonial settler nation like Australia. You would hope that every historian at a national conference would hear about indigenous history in at least one paper and that was the case at this conference. Professor Grace Karskens’ keynote presentation was on ‘Re-entangling settler colonial, Aboriginal and environmental history‘.

When I saw how often the words ‘Aboriginal’ and ‘Indigenous’ were mentioned in the abstracts it reminded me that Aboriginal people are one of the most studied peoples, and it is generally European-Australians who are the ones studying Aboriginal peoples. It is important that European Australians always remember to include our significant indigenous history, but it is also important we listen to Aboriginal people research and tell their own history.

And so it was good that this conference included a number of Aboriginal historians. The conference biographies indicate that the following Aboriginal historians presented:

Women’s History

Another word used frequently in the abstracts was ‘women’. The program included an Australian Women’s History Network stream with twenty-four papers and the wonderfully-titled ‘Wild Jill’ plenary session in honour of Emeritus Professor Jill Roe who died earlier this year. In the main conference sessions, there were another eight papers which looked at various aspects of women’s history.

When analysing a conference Twitter stream I am always interested to see whether the tweets reflect the balance and content of the conference program. Back in 2013 I noted that even though there were twenty-four Australian Women’s History Network papers in that conference, there was very little tweeting about women’s history during the conference.

It was quite a different story at the 2017 conference. Now the Australian Women’s History Network is on Twitter, as is the Australian feminist history journal, LilithBoth Twitter handles tweeted a prolific number of original tweets during the conference using the #AWHN2017 hashtag. The Australian Women’s History Network has a vibrant blog and both Twitter accounts are active throughout the year sharing interesting women’s history news.

Environmental History

Environmental history had a strong presence at the this year’s conference with 38 papers delivered in the Environmental History stream. Environmental history was also a key topic in the plenary session ‘Re-entangling Capitalism, Colonialism and the Environment‘.

There didn’t seem to be much tweeting of the environmental history stream. Of course, there can be many reasons for that, one being that no-one in the room is on Twitter. One of the attendees at this year’s conference made a pertinent comment on my first post about the 2017 conference a couple of days ago:

One of my favourite presentations from the conference was Dr. Michael Stevens: ‘Whakarērere taku kaipuke ki Te Moana Tāpokopoko a Tāwhaki: ‘Sea-ing’ Kāi Tahu Whānui in the Tasman World’, yet I didn’t tweet it at all because I was so caught in my scribbling.

One of twitter’s paradoxes is that it privileges some types of content over others…

This is so true. Complex papers are hard to tweet. I have also heard papers on very sensitive issues and stopped tweeting as I don’t want the sound-bite that is a tweet to be misinterpreted or misused.

I suspect that while the environmental history stream was popular, there just wasn’t anyone listening to the papers who could tweet them, just like there was no-one to tweet the Australian Women’s History Network papers in 2013. The Australian and New Zealand Environmental History Network has a website and active blog and it. Over the last couple of years a lot of work has gone into organising this network. At the conference there was a meeting about developing the network further:

I suspect that it is just a matter of time before environmental history will become a substantial part of the conference Twitter stream.

Faith was covered in the plenary panel, ‘Imperial Entanglements of Faith, Emotion and Affect‘. The Religious History Association also organised a religious history stream at the conference with nine papers.

Of course with a quality conference with as many papers as the Australian Historical Association conference, I could share some more fascinating threads but all good things must come to an end some time.

But wait…

there is more…

I can’t leave you without sharing some more Storify stories about themes that interested me from the conference:



Further Reading and Resources

This is the third in a series of posts about the 2017 Australian Historical Association Conference. Read the others:

You can still access some resources about the 2017 Australian Historical Association conference:

I have been blogging about conferences since 2012:

2 thoughts on “Topics that Interest Historians in Australia

  1. I was interested to see your list of Indigenous presenters: it’s not easy to find history written by Indigenous historians for the general public but I have read John Maynard’s Living with the Locals, which he co-authored with Victoria Haskins. It’s a terrific book which I read in conjunction with Larissa Behrendt’s Finding Eliza which is a literary (not historical) analysis of how Aborigines were depicted in narratives by people who’d been lost, abandoned or shipwrecked in the bush.
    If you know of others, (if it’s not too much work) could you maybe make a list as a resource, as you have with your women historians? Not of all their academic papers, just the histories that would be of interest to the general public.


    • Thanks for suggesting I do a list of histories written by Aboriginal authors. It reminds me of a rather incomplete list of histories written by Australian Aboriginal authors I wrote in 2012. I could use that as my starting point.

      One thing to ponder is how we define ‘historians’ and how we define and do history. ‘History’ as a discipline is a western cultural construct. It started with privileging documentary evidence and ignoring all other forms of evidence. Now we know that a lot of substantial issues and events were ignored or cloaked in documents. Often documents are a form of fiction and fiction reveals deeper historical processes. Finding Eliza is a history. The type of analysis Larissa Behrendt uses is used by many historians. It is also a form of analysis used in literary studies. This is the strength of using an inter-disciplinary approach.

      Who is an historian and what is history? Aboriginal people will broaden and deepen these questions. The ‘Experiences working with Indigenous memory and oral history’ panel gave a taste of how these approaches might be broadened by including an Aboriginal concept of history. The very different sense of time held by Aboriginal peoples, the Aboriginal approach to oral history and the deep reading of Aboriginal arts and artefacts will bring a lot to history as a discipline in the future. A ‘history’ may not be a book, but it could be a play, a work of visual art etc.

      These are the questions I will have to grapple with in creating a list of histories written by Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. I am not sure when I will have to get onto it. I have not even been able to manage a review for your Indigenous Literature Week this year even though I have a book in mind to read. Ah well, every week should be Indigenous Literature Week. I’ll just read and review it later this year.


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